Recently, I was driving to a wedding in a state park in New Hampshire. It’s just over an hour from where I live in Boston, but the setting felt worlds away: thick trees surrounded the clearing, the sun was bright, and the sky was clear. At my table during the reception, conversation returned to this idyllic setting again and again — we couldn’t get over how nice it was to be in the woods and how calm it would be to live somewhere just like that park, to have space to walk by the lake and underneath the trees, to grow our vegetables and ignore our inboxes.
Regarding natural surroundings as restorative spaces isn’t new, and neither is seeking out the solitude of the woods as an intentional escape. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, he explains: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
It’s this deliberate living that the ensemble cast of Caite Dolan-Leach’s novel, We Went to the Woods, uses as their model for what they call the Great Experiment. Mackenzie Johnston, or Mack, moves back home to Ithaca, New York, after leaving a graduate program in anthropology. When she meets Louise Stein-Jackson, the young women hit it off, and Louise quickly invites Mack into her group of friends — Chloe, Jack, and Beau. Before long, the newly established group of five moves to a plot of land owned by Louise’s family and sets up their homestead for the experiment: a main cabin with a wood stove and storage for preserved vegetables, small single-room cabins for sleeping, a water source. Louise, the de facto leader, dismisses the idea of setting up rules like Thoreau purported to and instead stresses the goal of controlling what they eat and how this food is made.
It’s clear why a person would want to retreat to a restorative setting, especially a space that would allow more control over their impact on the environment. At the wedding in the woods, though, we quickly considered all that we would have to give up to do so: jobs, friends close-by, neighborhoods, grocery stores, even walking everywhere we needed to go each day. After the celebrations ended, we drove back to our homes and our lives in the city, happily sun-soaked but ready to return. Dolan-Leach’s novel, We Went Into the Woods, hinges on this question on the other side of this group’s decision: What would make a person want to leave society in the first place?
Dolan-Leach allows the reader insight into Mack’s reasoning right away. Mack, the narrator, describes her return home as shameful — but she withholds almost all of the details. This omission propels the first sections of the book, but by the time Mack has joined this group of friends and moved to the Homestead, it’s easy to lose this thread just long enough for Mack’s reflections to be a welcome reminder to pay closer attention.
It’s through Mack’s narration, then, that we learn about the other characters. She falls into the close-knit cluster of friends deeply and quickly, refreshed by their intellectual conversations and their dynamic as a group: “I was hungry for conversation, for people who played parts and over-imbibed and told stories and knew one another too well.” In the beginning, this conversation is rife with allusions to Ancient Greek texts and American Transcendental ideologies, as well as debates about morality and responsibility in the age of modern technology and global warming. As sexual attraction and disagreement raise tensions at the Homestead, Mack’s recounting focuses less on this intellectual content and more on how these people interact with each other and, perhaps most importantly, interact with her.
Dolan-Leach begins the first line of the novel with Mack’s confession: “I’m the wrong one to tell our story.” But if Mack is an astute observer and an outsider invested in these people and their Great Experiment, she seems like the ideal group member to tell this story. This confession frames the suspenseful novel and adds another layer to its driving question — you can’t help but keep reading to figure out why Mack has reason to leave not only society, but also this new intentional community, this Great Experiment that brought her into the woods.
We Went to the Woods
By Caite Dolan-Leach
Published July 2, 2019